(UR) Washington, D.C. — As Iraqi military forces were beginning their initial push into Mosul on Tuesday, theWashington Post was reporting that U.S. defense officials are working to overcome serious roadblocks in the way of a successful campaign to eject ISIS militants from Raqqa — the capital, in northern Syria, of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate.
“This is one of the situations in which we have contacts and influence over all the actors,” one official told the Post. “But we’re not in total control.”
The Raqqa offensive, according to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s comments in late October, will begin in a matter of weeks. Originally, the campaign was set to take place in coordination with the effort in Mosul that launched two weeks ago, but unresolved issues among participants forced planners to put the offensive on hold.
And those issues, according to the Post’s anonymous government sources, center largely on the continuing friction between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.
“More ominously,” writes the Post, in reference to interviews with defense officials, “they cite the explosive dynamics between two allies: Turkey and Syrian Kurdish fighters, who form the bulk of the existing offensive force.”
That “existing offensive force” is the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and those “Syrian Kurdish fighters”come from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The two separate forces — that of the Turkish military and that of the Kurdish YPG — are both purported to be U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. Turkey doesn’t trust the YPG, however, because it believes the YPG is connected to a three-decade old Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Beyond trust issues, the situation is further complicated by the fact of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent independence streak. Riding newfound support at home after surviving a coup attempt, Erdoğan has begun to assert the Turkish military more boldly in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Turkey, for instance, stressed a desire to participate in the Iraq offensive to take Mosul, but was told by the Iraqi prime minister to keep out of it.
Certainly, then, Erdoğan was less than pleased to hear the comments of Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend — the U.S. military commander in Iraq — last week in Washington, D.C.
“The facts are these,” Townsend said while explaining to reporters that plans to retake Raqqa were underway. “The only force that is capable of any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the Y.P.G. are a significant portion.”
Townsend didn’t say the Turks couldn’t play in Raqqa, though, he simply said they had to play nice.
“We’ll welcome any contributing nation that wants to make themselves part of the coalition,” he stated at a press conference last Thursday. However, he said, they can’t “come with a whole bunch of strings” and must “be willing to do what the coalition needs done.”
In other words, Turkey must control itself around the Kurds or step out of the coalition’s way.
Perhaps the most dangerous element in the overall effort to eject ISIS from Iraq and Syria, however, will be spillover as the conflicts continue to stretch on.
Citing their anonymous defense officials, the Washington Post noted that, as all the campaigns proceed and potentially intersect, the fighting will come “within shooting distance of Aleppo, where Syria’s civil war is raging between rebels and government forces and their Russian and Iranian allies.”
Or, as one official flatly told the Post: “A lot of forces could collide.”
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